The Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office said Tuesday it would once again consider allowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive outside funding for his legal expenses in a series of graft cases.
In a statement, the committee said there had been “a significant change of circumstances” since the three occasions the request had been previously made and rejected.
Notably, the committee is now composed of different officials than those who rejected the premier’s former requests.
“The committee believes that the significant change in circumstances is reflected in the fact that three indictments have been filed to which a witness list comprising hundreds of witnesses has been attached, as well as over a thousand binders of investigative material,” the committee’s statement read.
“The committee gives great weight to the fact that, at this time, the costs cannot be accurately estimated but are very high. According to the prime minister’s representatives, it will be at least NIS 10 million [approximately $2.9 million].”
Netanyahu is one of Israel’s richest politicians, with Forbes reporting last year he was worth NIS 50 million ($13.8 million).
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel watchdog slammed the decision as “dangerous” in a statement to Channel 13 news.
“After deceiving the Supreme Court and the Permits Committee, and three times in a row refusing to hand over documents to the committee, the prime minister gets a fourth chance from the same very committee, whose own rules say its decision is final,” the statement read. “This is a dangerous intrusion of foreign and political elements into a quasi-judicial body, and a further deterioration of the democratic character of the State of Israel.”
In its former makeup, the committee thrice rejected Netanyahu’s request to accept donations from wealthy benefactors for his legal expenses and instructed him to return funds he had already received.
Netanyahu asked the committee to again consider the matter earlier this month, and the panel said it would convene to hear claims by the premier that he should be permitted to receive funding and to clarify the forum’s earlier ruling on the matter.
The committee explained at the time that it was able to reconsider the matter as “decisions by this tribunal, in contrast to a legal decision, do not have a principle of finality, and can be changed.”
Three members of the four-person committee resigned in August amid a dispute with the new State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman over the prime minister’s cases. Channel 13 reported at the time that the comptroller had lashed out at them over their demand that Netanyahu return money he had received from his cousin for his legal cases, calling it an overstep of the committee’s authority.
The move was largely an act of protest, as their two-year terms were due to end the next month in any case. The committee’s chair did not resign but his term ended in September. Englman then appointed the committee’s new members.
Netanyahu’s lawyers have claimed Mandeblit’s November decision to charge the premier in three criminal cases marked an important change in circumstances.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in all three probes, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and claims the “trumped-up charges” are an effort by opponents to boot him from office.
Although the prime minister initially requested parliamentary immunity he later withdrew the request when it became clear that it he did not have a majority in the Knesset to grant it. Mandelblit, who had been waiting for the outcome of the immunity proceedings, then immediately filed the indictment against the premier in late January.
In September, Mandelblit said he would allow Netanyahu to take a loan from a friend, American businessman Spencer Partrich, to help fund his legal defense. That announcement came after Englman approved Netanyahu’s request to receive funding from Partrich, conditioning his decision on Mandelblit, who concluded that there would be no conflict of interest involved in transferring funds for that purpose. The attorney general’s team said that Partrich had no significant business connections in Israel and that the loan could thus go ahead.
The issue of the funding for Netanyahu’s legal defense has been contentious. Over the past year, in addition to ordering the prime minister to return funds he received from his cousin Nathan Milikowsky, the Permits Committee has rejected Netanyahu’s demand to be allowed to receive financial aid — worth up to $2 million — for his expenses.
In denying Netanyahu the financial help, the Permits Committee had said it was inappropriate for wealthy benefactors to pay for the prime minister’s legal defense in a criminal case relating to his alleged receipt of gifts from such benefactors in Israel and abroad, Case 1000.
It also said such aid should be sought only if the public servant needs the financial help — and asked Netanyahu to submit an assessment of his assets and net worth. The prime minister refused to do so.
The State Comptroller’s Office has reportedly seen a dramatic shift in its function under Englman. Haaretz reported in July last year that Englman planned to scale back the office’s probes into public corruption and focus on the post’s traditional and uncontroversial role as the polite internal critic of the state bureaucracy.
Englman, an accountant by training and former education executive who ran the prestigious Technion Institute of Technology and the state’s top university regulator, the Council for Higher Education, was sworn in to the job on July 1. He is the first comptroller in three decades who is not a former judge.
His appointment, passed by the Knesset in June with the backing of Netanyahu’s coalition, comes in the wake of two comptrollers, Micha Lindenstrauss and Yosef Shapira, who transformed the post into a key corruption watchdog — drawing praise from non-governmental watchdog groups, but also criticism from some politicians and officials for expanding the role of the office.